Mark Reviews Movies

THE BOOK OF ELI

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes

Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits

MPAA Rating: R (for some brutal violence and language)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 1/15/10


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 14, 2010

The Hughes brothers (Albert and Allen) have given us yet another richly realized portrait of a post-apocalyptic world with The Book of Eli. Here, ashes fall like snow from the trees of a forest, dust has settled upon everything, the sun shines so brightly that everyone must wear sunglasses or goggles while outside, and the sky glows an eerie green, as though it has grown ill from something unnatural, which we later learn was at least one nuclear explosion (but probably more). The people who remember it 30 years later call it "the light."

The movie's imagery is striking, even after witnessing so much like it. Cinematographer Don Burgess washes almost all the color from this world, covered in ash, tinted by darkened lenses, and sort of playing with the concept of the hero's point of view (a point that will make sense by the movie's end).

The Book of Eli is also a pretty obvious religious treatise without a conviction of its intent. Gary Whitta's script walks up to the edge on multiple occasions, but doesn't have the courage to take the leap it so desperately needs.

The hero is Eli (Denzel Washington), known throughout most of the movie as the Walker, because he has been walking west for decades. The reason, he tells his later co-walker Solara (Mila Kunis), is because a voice from within him told him where to find a certain book and then to bring the book West where it would be safe.

Only he can touch the book. He reads it daily and quotes from it often, especially before eviscerating and decapitating hijackers and other villainy he encounters. It is, according to him, the key to humanity's salvation.

The conflict comes in the form of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), another voracious reader who is looking for the same book Eli has in his possession. He remembers it from before the blinding light struck and knows its power. Like Eli, he believes it should be shared. Unlike Eli, Carnegie sees the book as a weapon, "aimed right at the hearts of the weak."

The book, as I suppose it should be clear by now, is the Authorized King James Version of the Bible. It is the last remaining copy, because after the war, the rest were burnt by people who thought it had caused the war in the first place.

Whitta's screenplay makes no bones about the fact that Eli is a divine messenger, protected by supernatural forces to accomplish his mission. He gets into fights and always walks away victorious, unscathed. The Hugheses revel in these sequences, kicking off the violence and carnage with a startling battle in silhouette. A group of hijackers confront Eli, and he fights them with his long blade beneath an underpass. Shadows of blood erupt from his fallen enemies, until he is only left to deal with a chainsaw-wielding grunt, who inevitably falls as well.

Another such sequence takes place in Carnegie's bar. The camera spins as Eli dispatches his foes, heads popping off and tumbling to the ground. Their camera can't bother to be stationary in a shootout inside an old house, weaving back and forth through windows and bullet-holes, as Eli and his partners swap bullets with Carnegie and his minions. One of Eli's bullets, of course, is good for every minion's twenty.

These scenes are proficient, and a few, like the shadowy standoff, are downright impressive. Combined with the desolate wasteland, they provide a viscerally exciting actioner.

The battle of philosophies in Eli and Carnegie's dialogues promises something to be gained from exploring that age-old clash between faith (principle) and religion (power). Neither of them seems to understand the book they covet. Eli, after decades of recitation, finally comes to understand it's about doing more for others than for yourself, while Carnegie thinks the words of the book alone can change the world—in his benefit, naturally.

It sets these issues up, but Whitta doesn't follow through. In retrospect, the action scenes (and revelation of the book and Eli's task) merely stall the moment of confrontation. The Hughes brothers' accomplishment here is we only notice in retrospect. When the moment finally comes, Whitta leaves us wanting. Interpretation, it turns out, is as important as possession, and only the faithful of this movie have that ability.

The Book of Eli, then, suffers mainly from simplicity. There's ultimately a parabolic meaning to the affair, but the movie sets up arguments and ideas deeper than that.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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